It was one of the greatest jam sessions in history. On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins arrived at Sun Records Studio in Memphis and Sam Phillips presided over what followed.
The musical Million Dollar Quartet captures that night, not only in music but with a story about those performers just as they were starting out on their careers.
"Basically, you are taking four of the most recognizable musical icons in history and kind of giving the audience a sneak peek into their background before they were stars," said actor Christopher Grant, who plays recording producer Sam Phillips. "We're taking that legendary icon status and we're boiling it down to just good old boys. "
"You get to be a fly on the wall when this watershed moment in music history happened."
Grant started out with the New York production in February 2010 as a cover for the Johnny Cash role. (The musical has been on and off Broadway.) "Once the tour started, I decided I wanted to talk more," he said. The tour has done so well that it's extended its bookings halfway into the next year, he added.
"We just got back from Memphis, which was really special. A bunch of the boys and I, after the shows, we'd go back to Sun Studio and record till 2-3 in the morning some of our own stuff," said Grant. "There's a black X on the floor to mark where Elvis was supposed to stand to sing into his mike. It was really wild, I'm telling you."
Grant grew up singing in a choir, has a bachelor's and a master's of Fine Arts and even studied at Oxford. Most of his training is in theater. But like most of the performers in the musical, Grant grew up knowing this kind of music. "The only one [who didn'] -- our Jerry Lee is from Manchester, so he didn't have a whole lot of exposure -- he was listening to Elton John as a kid, so we had to rockabilly him up a bit."
The musical attracts a range of people, from baby boomers and people who grew up with the music "and all these young hip kids now listening to Johnny Cash," he said.
Often people like to sing along, and Grant said he doesn't mind that. "Our favorite audiences are the ones that want to sing and dance. We like it when they get rowdy. Everything we do is live onstage. There's no backing tracks. Any music you hear comes straight from us. The audiences shoot up to their feet at the end. We like the rowdy ones."
And as in any live music production, things go wrong. "We're constantly changing guitar strings onstage and the piano gets beaten to death. Our Jerry Lee understudy actually repairs the piano every day; he's a boy genius."
When things go wrong during a performance, Grant says he's usually the one to straighten it out. "I've got a direct line to the stage manager. They call me and I go out and try to work it into the show. Keeps me on my toes."
One reason so many people are interested in this music is because of the resurgence of vinyl, Grant said, adding that he's got a massive vinyl collection himself.
"You get all these audiophiles who are digging into these old collections and when you dig back far enough, you start to find these gems, these early, early recordings, and a lot of that stuff was done at Sun Records. There was a good period of time there in the early '50s, Sun was the only company putting out this sort of stuff.
"Sam was a sound guy. He'd wander around the studio messing with mikes, putting cardboard boxes over them, running feedback through the boards so he got this echo slap back sound which eventually became rock and roll, so he was kind of the pioneer of that."
Drummer W.S. "Fluke" Holland, who actually played behind Perkins and Cash, sometimes sits in, Grant said. Holland is fond of telling them that all that was needed to break into the business back in the day was a car to get you to Sun Studios and three minutes of recording time, Grant said.
"This is a little snapshot into a part of history that people don't think about a lot," Grant said. "They take these icons for granted and forget that they at one point were young boys just starting their career out. You get to hear all the big hits and you get a story line. It's not just a jukebox musical."
Million Dollar Quartet runs February 28 to March 4 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, courtesy of Gexa Energy Broadway. For ticket information, call 800-982-2787 or visit www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com/Houston or www.TheHobbyCenter.org.
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